After my tomato blog, an old friend, Vito Bastardi, phoned to ask about the origin of Italian cheeses. I have to admit that our conversation inspired me to write about the subject, and maybe dig around a bit in the fridge.
But before I tell you what I discovered, Vito told me that an old friend living in Naples, Italy, had given him a joke book with an entire section devoted to cheeses. If he laughed at one, he’d flag it with a Post-it and later translate it into English. The problem was, after reading 74 cheese jokes, he’d only flagged eight. And believe me, with his eccentric sense of humor, I’m surprised he didn’t flag the entire 74.
I told Vito that I didn’t think cheese was a particularly great source for comedy, but I would tell him what I knew about Italian cheeses and then listen to his eight jokes. Vito smiled, nodded, and told me to start talking about cheese.
“Let’s begin,” I said, “with what group of people invented or discovered cheese.” The list was surprisingly long. The top suspects: were Arabs, Egyptians, Chinese, Greeks, and Romans.
Many of the stories go back to the dawn of written history some 6,000 years ago. But honestly, I didn’t care. What I was interested in was Italian cheeses and their connection to the ancient Romans.
Most people know that cheese plays a major role in Italian cuisine. It is a fact that the ancient Romans invented cheese as we know it today. They established the standard of excellence when it came to cheese making. They discovered that changes in the environment and materials used affected the flavor of the cheese. A soldier/farmer named Lucius Junius Columella (4–70 AD) laid down the basic principles in 50 AD that can still be applied today. His writings were recorded in his 65 AD book titled De Re Rustica, and cover a great many of his insights concerning Roman cheese-making.
Four hundred years later, Germanic leader Odoacer instigated the fall of the Roman Empire and became the first barbarian to rule Rome. The last of the western emperors, the teenage Romulus, had been on the job for less than a year when the whole empire came apart. While the fall traumatically unbalanced a lot of customs for generations of Italians, it didn’t seem to have much influence on the work of cheese makers.
Here is a definition of how cheese is made today:
“To make cheese, milk is pasteurized and cooked until the whey separates from the curd. Then the curd is put into a mold and pressed to create a wheel or block of cheese. Any curd that doesn't make it into the mold are "cheese curds," the by-product of cheese making, and are a snack unto themselves.” *Wikipedia
I put together a quiz a while back that should give you a real feel for Italian cheeses. But first, two of Vito’s eight cheese jokes.
(1) “What do you say when a Mexican steals your cheese?”
Answer: “That’s nacho cheese.” Remember these are Vito’s jokes, not mine.
(2) “What is the sadist cheese on the planet?”
Answer: “Blue cheese.”
Europeans, including the Swiss, French, Spaniards, Greeks, and the Dutch, also developed their own types of cheeses.
The first type of cheese to arrive in the New World was goat cheese. The first mass production of cheese in this country took place in 1851 in New York. Demand for cheese has risen steadily ever since. No doubt for the sake of cheese itself as well as products containing cheese. Who, for instance, can imagine surviving more than a month without pizza or lasagna?
Here’s my Italian Cheese quiz. (Answers at the end.)
1] Let’s start with the easiest cheese question: What is the Italian word for cheese?
2] This name classifies cheeses from goat’s milk, possessing particular aromas and characteristics.
3] The name for cheeses made from sheep’s milk is….?
4] Considered one of the quintessential American comfort foods, it combines cheese and what else?
5] A hard, salty cheese, suitable primarily for grating. The original Italian is protected by EU laws.
6] It’s the Italian word for recooked and is actually not a cheese, but a by-product of other Italian cheeses.
7] One of Italy's most famous cheeses, typically aged from 3 to 36 months.
8] The third crucial ingredient in cheese production after milk and rennet.
9] A complex of enzymes used in the production of most cheeses.
10] A cheese produced with the milk of cows grazing high altitude, Alpine grass.
11] The original is made from water buffalo milk. Comes in balls, blocks or shredded.
12] The last operation in the making of cheese.
13] Named after a town outside Milan where it was originally made. Italian version of blue cheese.
14] This operation is necessary for all cheeses of a semi-hard, cooked and semi-cooked nature.
15] Southern Italian cheese from cow’s milk that literally means horse cheese.
16] A triple-cream cow’s milk cheese, with a texture similar to American cream cheese. Think tiramisu.
17] Generic name for fresh, snowy cheeses from Piedmont, made with cow, goat, or sheep’s milk; or combination of all three.
18] The yellower the color, the riper and more flavorful. Excellent for melting.
19] This Cheese dates back to the 12th century, when it was developed by Cistercian and Benedictine monks. The more common French name is used in the U.S.
20] My personal favorite, and most typical of the Veneto region. Perfect for shredding and used as a table cheese for pasta, risotto, or soups. Italian cow's milk cheese that can assume different textures, according to its aging, from smooth for the fresh cheese to a crumbly texture for the aged cheese.
If you score at least 75% (15/20) on this cheese quiz, get yourself the best pizza in town for dinner. But not the extra-large. Remember your arteries.
Answers for cheese quiz
5 Pecorino Romano
7 Parmigiano - Reggiano
19 Parmesan / Parmigiano Reggiano
Now, to end this cheese blog with a few more laughs, or at the very least a smile.
(3) “What did the Greek guy do when his wife was hungry?”
“He feda cheese.”
“How do you get a mouse to smile?”
“You say ‘cheese’.”
“What is the most religious cheese?”
“Swiss, because it’s holy.”
“What do you call a cheese factory in the Middle East?”
“Cheeses of Nazareth.”
“Which cheese can surround a medieval castle?”
And finally the last joke. (I promise.)
“What did Senor Parmesan say when he broke up with Signorina Mozzarella?”
“I’m very sorry, but I’m just too mature for you.”